Monday, July 02, 2012

Charles Dickens on copyright

English author Charles Dickens had strong views about copyright and its infringement by publishers and newspapers, as evident from this letter he wrote his close friend and brother-in-law, Henry Austin, an American architect and artist, on May 1, 1842. Not much has changed since Dickens’ angry outburst against “scoundrel booksellers” and “detestable newspaper(s)” a hundred and seventy years ago.

“I am glad you exult in the fight I have had about the copyright. If you knew how they tried to stop me, you would have a still greater interest in it. The greatest men in England have sent me out, through Forster, a very manly, and becoming, and spirited memorial and address, backing me in all I have done. I have despatched it to Boston for publication, and am coolly prepared for the storm it will raise. But my best rod is in pickle.

“Is it not a horrible thing that scoundrel booksellers should grow rich here from publishing books, the authors of which do not reap one farthing from their issue by scores of thousands; and that every vile, blackguard, and detestable newspaper, so filthy and bestial that no honest man would admit one into his house for a scullery door-mat, should be able to publish those same writings side by side, cheek by jowl, with the coarsest and most obscene companions with which they must become connected, in course of time, in people's minds? 

“Is it tolerable that besides being robbed and rifled an author should be forced to appear in any form, in any vulgar dress, in any atrocious company; that he should have no choice of his audience, no control over his own distorted text, and that he should be compelled to jostle out of the course the best men in this country who only ask to live by writing? I vow before high heaven that my blood so boils at these enormities, that when I speak about them I seem to grow twenty feet high, and to swell out in proportion. Robbers that ye are, I think to myself when I get upon my legs, here goes!”

[The above section has been excerpted from The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol.1 (of 3), 1833-1856, edited by Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law, and Mamie Dickens, his eldest daughter, under Project Gutenberg License.]


  1. I like Dickens more now than I did before. Pretty cool.

  2. Charles, Dickens must have been very, very angry when he penned those lines. Wonder what triggered his outburst at the time. Whatever it was, he must have good reason. His volumes of letters are a revelation and I'm reading them at random.

  3. I believe Dickens may have been directing this diatribe at the Americans who were pirating his work. It may have been well into the 20th century before British copyright was honored here.

  4. Ron, you have a point. His work was most likely lifted by the many American newspapers and magazines that published short stories and serialised entire novels. Wonder if Dickens' contemporaries had similar views.